Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What the Election Means for Medicare Reform

Yesterday, Diane Rehm's panel included Julie Hirschfeld Davis, congressional correspondent for Bloomberg News, and Amy Walter, political director for ABC News. I didn't catch much of the show, but I did catch the following atrocious analysis. Starting with Walter:
However, fixing some things about Medicare certainly are doable. And, you know, we had a big fight in this election about Medicare. Now, the interesting point is, you know, both sides can see victory there. On the one hand, the Romney ticket lost and, of course, on that ticket was Paul Ryan, who made the issue of Medicare a centerpiece of his budget. The so-called voucherization as Democrats would say, premium support is how Republicans would argue, lost in one sense.
Given her position, it is difficult for me to believe that Walter is unaware of the fact that Paul Ryan himself referred to his reform proposals as creating vouchers. The reason that the Republicans don't want to use that term has nothing to do with its being a fair description of their plan, and everything to do with how it polls. We saw exactly the same game played back when G.W. Bush was trying to "reform" Social Security - the Republicans called their plan a privatization plan, and when the public recoiled at the term they started talking instead about "personal accounts" and purported that their own original description of the plan was a partisan slur.1

By the same token, who used to refer to the Ryan Plan as a voucher plan? You guessed it.2 "Premium support" is the poll-tested term he would have preferred be substituted for the one he personally originated in relation to his own plans, and which he knows to be accurate. A political director for the news division of a major network should clarify the facts, not play along with Ryan's semantic games.
On the other hand, it didn't lose that badly. I mean, it's not as if the issue was the defining focus of this campaign, and in some cases, while the president was ahead on Medicare, in the final tally, it was not by such a tremendous percentage that Republicans can look back and say, boy, that was really dangerous. We shouldn't have brought that up at all. In fact, they can say, we didn't get beat that bad on it.
Here, Walter is simultaneously arguing that Medicare was not "the defining focus of this campaign" - that is, the President's victory cannot be ascribed to his position on Medicare - and that the Republicans "didn't get beat that bad on it". You can't have it both ways. If most voters were motivated by issues other than Medicare, although you can draw the conclusion that proposals to voucherize Medicare aren't going to destroy a campaign as long as they remain in the background, it tells you nothing about what would happen if they were perceived as the defining focus of a campaign.

Then Davis takes the argument from bad to worse:
The other thing is that if you look at the groups that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan won, seniors were a big part of it. I mean, it's been the case in the past that you couldn't talk about this without being really afraid that you were going to alienate an important voting constituency. It -- we didn't really see it happen in Florida or anywhere else, really, for Mitt Romney. And now, you could argue that Medicare wasn't the primary issue in this election. But it was certainly very much in the conversation.

And as Amy said, when Paul Ryan became the vice presidential pick, it was a major item on people's radar screen. And they didn't pay for it among older voters. So that is an indication, I think, for Republicans that they can maybe do this and maybe even for Democrats and not get -- pay such a huge political price if they do it the right way.
Surely Davis has a long enough memory to recall what actually happened. Romney promised not to touch Social Security for anybody who is presently retired or will be retiring over the next decade. Sure, some were smart enough to figure out that he intended to voucherize the program for younger workers, but many did not, and many who did either didn't care about the younger workers or felt that Romney's procrastination put the issue so far into the future that it wasn't relevant to their vote. On top of that, Romney engaged in shameless demagoguery about Obama's proposed cuts to Medicare spending, pretending that they were cuts of benefits to seniors and that the President wanted to take away the benefits of good, retired people who had earned them in order to give health insurance to lazy, poor people.

You cannot draw the lesson from Romney's campaign that it is safe to propose major changes to Medicare without risking alienating "an important voting constituency", namely the seniors who presently receive or who are about to receive Medicare, because Romney did not actually take that risk. A courageous political leader who sincerely believed Medicare needs to be turned into a voucher program for the good of the country might have done so, anyway, but Romney was anything but courageous and it remains difficult to discern whether he has any sincere beliefs.

Also, Davis has to know that before the election Ryan was a relatively obscure person outside of the Beltway and Tea Party circles, that his "budget" is hogwash, and that most voters don't believe accurate descriptions of what Ryan proposed to do through that budget. Ryan's selection as Romney's running mate meant about as much to Medicare policy as Palin's selection meant for foreign policy. The election is over - there's no need to pretend otherwise.
1. G.W. Bush wrote in "Decision Points,
Democratic leaders alleged I wanted to "privatize" Social Security. That was obviously poll-tested language designed to scare people. It wasn't true. My plan saved Social Security, modernized Social Security, and gave Americans the opportunity to own a piece of their Social Security. It did not privatize Social Security.
As should be needless to say, the term "privatization" came from organizations like Cato and FreedomWorks, not the political left. Further, when he created the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security, back in 2001, the members of the commission understood that the President wanted them to at least partially privatize the system. Here's an exchange between Committee member Leanne Abdnor (straight out of Cato) and Roger Hickey, from the Institute for America’s Future:
MS. ABDNOR: But just real quickly. In your statement you said that our mandate, as given to us by the President is, in other words, to privatize Social Security?

MR. HICKEY: That is the way I understood it.

MS. ABDNOR: My question is does that mean that a total -- does privatization mean that the President wants to dismantle, completely dismantle the program? Is that your understanding?

MR. HICKEY: No. I think I have specified that he has mandated you to partially privatize the system.

MS. ABDNOR: But not dismantle the system. Correct?

MR. HICKEY: I don’t think the President intends to dismantle the system. No.

MS. ABDNOR: I’m sorry?

MR. HICKEY: I don’t think the President intends -- thinks that he is giving you a mandate to --

MS. ABDNOR: Okay. And the reason I say that is because a lot of people, when they hear the term privatize, they interpret it as we are going to do away with Social Security and dismantle it all together and replace it with that. I just wanted to be clear what your interpretation of that was. So, thank you.

MR. HICKEY: no. My point that I tried to make in my testimony clearly is that I think when you go down this road, when you pull on the string on part of an integrated system, the whole thing does start to unravel. Nobody has explained to me how you are going to be able to maintain survivors benefits, for example, and disability benefits when you are tampering with the retirement benefit, if, in fact, you do that. I do think that there is a danger of going down the road of private accounts, that the whole system starts to unravel and that you have something akin to dismantling of the system. But I think that you have been asked to look at privatizing a portion of the Social Security system, and I think -- I hope that you will think through the implications of that.

MS. ABDNOR: Absolutely. But if I understand your answer, no, you don’t mean to say that you believe the intention of the commission of the President is to completely to dismantle, but it could lead to that?

Ms. Abdnor was aware of the possible public reaction to the term "privatization", but she accepted the term as a fair description of the President's goals for the Committee.

2. And in the manner of G.W., Ryan accused people who used his words to describe his plan as using "a poll tested word designed to scare today's seniors".

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